Adding to the pressure facing federal food safety officials, a coalition of meat industry groups, both domestic and international, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack late last week urging delay in implementing the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s new policy on non-O157 E. coli. The new rule, set to take effect in March, would declare six additional disease-causing serotypes of E. coli — O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 — adulterants in certain meat products.

The coalition, which included key trade groups from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Uruguay, reiterated concerns about hindering international trade and questioned the public health rationale for the new policy, which it fears will be expensive. Both Australia and New Zealand, major trading partners, raised issue last week with the U.S. risk assessment.

“Given that STEC other than E. coli O157:H7 are not considered a major public health concern within countries such as Australia, New Zealand, among others and that the majority of non-E. coli O157 STEC infections are attributed to non-beef food sources, coupled with the infirmities of the Draft Risk Profile, legitimate WTO questions exist,” the groups contend in the letter, which was also sent to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

The letter also cites concerns about the federal government’s cost analysis, pointing out that FSIS admitted it does not know how many illnesses will actually be prevented by the policy.

“It is not clear whether on net there will be a reduction in the number of illnesses,” the letter quotes the notice. “It is also challenging to know what the industry cost will be because it is difficult to predict how many establishments will start to test and what the size of distribution will be or to what extent industry will take additional measures that will prevent, reduce or control those hazards, as they do with regard to O157 STEC.”

The groups asserted that STEC are not “an urgent and unique public health crisis” and called the policy “questionable.”

James Marsden, a widely respected food safety professor at Kansas State University, says that while there are legitimate issues with testing technology, “FSIS is right to address the public health risks associated with non-O157 STECs.”

“Under Secretary Hagen and FSIS Administrator Almanza deserve credit for courageously taking on this difficult issue,” wrote Marsden in a Meatingplace blog post Monday (subscription is required). “Dr. Dan Engeljohn has also been very helpful by reaching out to answer questions about the new policy and help industry make the necessary preparations.”

But Marsden also sympathized with the concerns raised by industry groups on the potential issues with current testing technology.

“While the objectives of the FSIS policy on non-O157 [STEC]’s are justified and well intended, the testing component is simply not ready for implementation. Testing for a group of STECs is quite different from testing for a specific single organism like E. coli O157:H7. This poses enormous challenges that are still unresolved,” said Marsden.

As Food Safety News reported, Dr. Mohammed Koohmaraei, a former USDA researcher who now works for world-renowned IEH Laboratories, has warned that there are likely to be more positive tests for non-O157s. He predicted that the potential positive rate for beef trimmings could be between 4 percent to 10 percent, which could mean more product will be diverted to cooking.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the six strains addressed under the new regulation cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually — beef is estimated to responsible for 36,700 of those cases.

Consumer and public health advocates have urged FSIS to implement the new policy — which would be the biggest change in meat regulation since declaring E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant–without delay.

FSIS is accepting comments on the new rule until until Dec. 21:!searchResults;rpp=10;po=0;s=FSIS-2010-0023